Magazine article The New Yorker

Surface, Not Depth

Magazine article The New Yorker

Surface, Not Depth

Article excerpt

The whole idea of B movies is to strip out the boring stuff--plot, character development, etc.--so they're all pinwheeling stuntmen, morphing mutants, exploding big rigs, and heaving bosoms. For sixty years, the producer Roger Corman set the rules in this twitchy domain. He shot fast: when he directed "The Little Shop of Horrors," in 1960, it wrapped in two days and a night. He shot cheap. And he recycled: he allowed Universal to reuse his title "The Fast and the Furious" in exchange for the studio's footage of ancient Rome in "Spartacus," which he then used as sourdough starter for any number of films. Artistic vision, Corman cheerfully acknowledged while taking a taxi downtown the other day, was a luxury. "Whenever we had a dull trailer, Joe Dante"--his trailer editor during the seventies--"would say, 'Cut to the exploding helicopter.' Who says trailers must only contain shots from the film?"

Yet Corman's four hundred films also helped launch Jack Nicholson, William Shatner, and Tommy Lee Jones, as well as the directors Ron Howard, Jonathan Demme, and Martin Scorsese. Julie Corman, the producer's wife and a producer in her own right, suggested in the taxi that "Boxcar Bertha"--Scorsese's second feature--could be interpreted on many levels: "Martin thought it was about his relationship with his brother. I thought it was a great statement about women's lib. And Roger thought it was a gangster movie."

Corman has now invited broader reappraisal by rolling out a catalogue raisonne of his work, a subscription YouTube channel called "Corman's Drive-In." Even the sublimely meaningless moment in "Sharktopus" when the leaping sea monster swallows the dangling bungee jumper will be subject to exegesis. (What does it say that Corman had his daughter Mary play the bungee jumper? Discuss, with reference to the patriarchal gaze.)

The Cormans were in Manhattan to see "Ellsworth Kelly at Ninety," a show of Kelly's paintings, at three locations in Chelsea. Julie said that Kelly was Roger's favorite contemporary painter, so "I gave him one for his fiftieth birthday, when I was pregnant. And because Roger bought into this German theory that the most well-adjusted children were brought up in blue-and-yellow environments, it had to be a blue-and-yellow Kelly." Corman remarked, "I loved the boldness of his colors and the flatness--that he was interested in surface, not depth."

At eighty-seven, the producer has a genial, emeritus-professor air that surprises those who know him only from "Attack of the 50ft Cheerleader. …

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